Of the films I've seen this year that could contend for best picture, Midnight In Paris, Moneyball, The Descendants, Shame, The Artist, two come from Canada. In fact, I have not seen better films than Monsieur Lazhar and Café de flore.
So while all eyes are facing south for the year's best, I thought it might be a good idea to take a moment and consider some of our own outstanding features.
1/ Monsieur Lazhar This film tops my list as the best film of 2011 - a list that is shared with Cafe de Flora and Shame. Not that I think Lazhar, or any of the films on my list, has much of a chance of winning a best picture Oscar. Hollywood just doesn't bend that way. Better is Lazhar's chance of winning as best foreign language film. This is a stunning film about an grade school teacher transported from Algeria to Quebec following a devastating personal tragedy. He walks into a job at an inner city Quebecois school to replace a teacher who committed a shocking act of violence in the classroom. This movie should be, by it's topic of loss, hopelessness and despair, heavy-handed and dark or, by contrast, sentimental schmaltz. Instead it Monsieur Lazhar is delightful and, without straining any illusions the word may conjure; it's magical. The film is by director Philippe Falardeau (It's Not Me, I Swear - 2008) who is possibly one of the most unassuming artists in the business. He has created in the character of Lazhar, a man of unquestionable merit with a capacity to understand grief and trauma without buckling under the extremities of his own demons. This is a movie that celebrates life and yet refuses to ignore the horrors. Not to be missed.
2/ Café de flore If any film were to beat out Monsieur Lazhar as best Canadian feature or and Oscar for best foreign language film it would be Cafe de flore. This is a love story that has at its center a spiritual odyssey that flows seamlessly from era to era, passing the logic of time and continuity in order to create a mystical revolution of cinema's possibilities. The strength of the film lies in so many aspects ranging from the music (not surprising since this film comes from C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) director Jean-Marc Vallée) to the out-of-sequence story-telling, to the strength of characters which include a middle-aged D.J., a disillusioned woman and a child with Downs Syndrome. This is a marvel of filmmaking that pushes its director into a higher echelon of film making artists.
3/ Billy Bishop Goes to War IMDB lists this as a 2010 film, but I first saw it at Cinefest in Sudbury (same place I came across Monsieur Lazhar). There's a terrible churning in my stomach that BBGtW may not get a theatrical release - and please, someone, correct me if I'm wrong. Seeing this film on the big screen is an experience one thinks exclusive to the big budget show-stopping musicals that come from Broadway and not from a two-hander (where one rarely utters a word and never leaves the piano) done on The Canadian Stage without the flourish of big sets, sweeping scenes and eye-popping dance numbers. There is a reason why Billy Bishop has become an iconic figure of the Canadian stage. Actor Eric Peterson as Bishop has an unexhausted ability to give life to a character that would otherwise fade into history folklore and risk being forgotten. But Peterson, along with his musical accomplice, John Gray do not lecture, or impose a history lesson on the audience. Peterson's performance is astounding. He never lets the drama lapse, never allows the story to dip into nostalgia (an impressive trick considering them film is a nostalgic trip for it's lead, and basically only, character), and his storytelling elevates us off the stage and into the chamber rooms of loved ones, onto the battlefields and into the pilot's seat. The music begs for a c.d. release. BBGtW ranks as not only one of Canada's best of the year, but one of the top films of 2011, anywhere.
4/ Starbuck Here is a comedy about the most prolific sperm donour in history - a 41 year-old adolescent man who, through financial need, ends up fathering 533 children. When one of the children decide to find out who their biological father is, the dam breaks and suddenly this irresponsible but highly fertile man-child is faced with over 100 children seeking his advice, love, attention and awareness. At time the film panders to the obvious - like when we find our hero suffering the uncomfortable indignities of santioned masterbation in a clinical and sterile environment complete with pornographic aids. Mostly director Ken Scott (Seducing Dr. Lewis - 2004) prefers to elevate the material to less obvious conjunctions where the comedy and drama plays out between the need of the characters, their disjunction and the overall desire to do well and be well. A real surprise.
5/ Take This Waltz There are always films to divide audiences and this latest one from Away From Her director, Sarah Polley, fits that bill. That I was so taken by the movie has a lot to do with the movies ability to convey life's inconceivable ability to reverse our emotions. Take This Waltz presents romance as a sometime thing, and love as a possibility without guarantees. The film plays so authentically that it's difficult not to assume that this is in some way autobiographical, an option Polley has firmly denied and so we must simply take her word on that. But another dimension is playing out, and that is a sense of time - relationships grow old, as do our bodies - age, moods, addictions, regrets all play a role in how we live out our lives. Polley cast two comedians in dramatic roles, Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman. That's always a risky move but Polley makes it work, particularly with Rogen who's jumbled sense of security erodes the bond that holds he and his wife, beautifully understood by Michelle Williams, together.
6/ Grinders Grinders are late night poker players who meet at clandestine gatherings to play illegal games of Texas Hold'em. For them, it's a life-style of secured rooms, secret rendezvous and quick earnings. But poker, as you might imagine, is not a guaranteed income and the fortunes that could lead you to security can also leave you to ruins. Documentary director, Matt Gallagher takes his cameras into these hidden lairs and talks to the people whose financial certainty is put to risk nightly. But this is more than a second hand experience documentary. For the first time Gallagher has put himself in front of the camera. With the arrival of a new child and a film career that has been stalled because of an uncertain economy, Gallagher needs quick income. He's good at poker and decides money can be earned at the tables. But is the risk worth the pay-off. Grinders can be currently seen on Doc Studio on the TVO web site.